Herb Stevens will start traveling on Wednesday down a long road strewn with minefields: the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Stevens' gelding, Rockhill Native, will make the first start of his 3-year-old season since being voted the champion 2-year-old of 1979. His position as the early favorite for the Derby will subject his trainer to months of intense pressure, scrutiny and second-guessing.
But if the 63-year-old Stevens senses any of this pressure, he did not betray it at Hialeah this morning. He seemed unconcerned when Rockhill Native went to the track for his daily exercise, and he could talk dispassionately about the race he want to win so much.
"There's a thing called Derby fever," he said, "and you've got to keep from letting it affect your thinking. You can't let the hoopla affect you at all. Winning the Derby would be the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my racing life, but I've got to keep thinking that I'm just running in the feature race on the first Saturday in May."
For most trainers, such a show of nonchalance would be sheer pretense. For Stevens, it comes naturally. He is the very embodiment of the down-to-earth, cool, laconic Kentucky horseman. This is in his blood: he and his brother Tommy are the fourth generation of a racing family that dates back to the Civil War.
The progenitor of the Stevens clan had to be cool. James Stevens, Herb's great-grandfather, would travel from Kentucky town to Kentucky town in a buggy, with a quarterhorse pulling the rig and another horse tied to the back. Before he reached a town, he would switch the two horses and drive in with the fresh one pulling the buggy. Then he would start talking horses with the locals, and declare, "I just drove here with a buggy horse who can beat any of your horses." Great-grandfather Stevens cashed a lot of bets.
With this kind of lineage, and a father who was a successful horseman, it was inevitable that Herb Stevens would be a trainer. But his ambitions were modest. He was quite content to operate in Kentucky year-round dealing with animals of moderate quality.
He was so unaccustomed to training well-bred horses that he almost routinely gelded his males, figuring that they would be easier to handle and that the world didn't need any more cheap stallions anyway.
So when Stevens encouraged owner Harry Oak to spend $26,000 for a son of Our Native and Beanery at a yearling sale, he was not entertaining any grandiose visions. "Rockhill Native was a little old fat kind of horse when we bought him," Stevens said. "We gelded him and he became a lot more athletic looking. His disposition was good; he was a very intelligent horse who loved to do his work. I knew before he ever ran that he was going to be a useful kind of horse."
Rockhill Native quickly demonstrated that he was going to be a lot more than "useful." He won his first three starts in Kentucky impressively, then came East and won three major stakes. Although he was beaten the only time he tried to go a mile, in the Champagne Stakes, at Belmont Park, his consistent record had already clinched the 2-year-old title.
Rockville Native was not an over-powering champion as were the ones who preceded him -- Spectacular Bid, Affirmed and Seattle Slew. Most handicappers considered him the best of a poor lot, and they wonder, in view of his loss in his only mile race and his unimposing pedigree, whether he is cut out to be a Derby horse.
Stevens plans to run Rockhill Native four times in Florida, then take him back to Kentucky for the Blue Grass Stakes and the Derby. Even if the gelding does falter, his trainer won't be fazed. "Pressure never gets to me," Stevens said."I just don't have that kind of mental makeup."